I had the honor of speaking at The PASS Business Analytics Conference 2015 last month. PASS is primarily a SQL community but they recently started to look at the larger business intelligence picture because of the ways that data flows all throughout an enterprise. So, the SQL conversation was expanded out to a more general business intelligence conversation, and a lot of Excel professionals were invited as presenters.
Deeper questions were asked during conversations outside of the sessions:
- Who are Excel Power users?
- What are their needs?
- How do they see the world?
- How are they different from professional IT personnel?
I sensed a deeper inquiry: given that Excel is the #1 business intelligence tool worldwide, why are there so many bad spreadsheets, and is there something that can be done to help Excel power users? And in light of endless stories around tensions between Excel users and IT departments, how can we play together? Ultimately, we’re on the same team.
The conference really got me thinking not only about the SQL community, but also the Excel community.
WHO ARE EXCEL USERS?
First. People in IT see themselves as IT professionals. It’s much clearer to them that their tools (SQL, C++, databases, SalesForce, Python …) are their profession and need to stay sharp.
Excel users, however, don’t see themselves as Excel users. They might be the resident Excel guru or just love Excel, but their title is something else: Marketing Specialist, Social Media Strategist, Classroom Ops Assistant, Sales Assistant, Executive Assistant, Project Manager, Community Outreach Coordinator, etc.
Excel might be 80% of their professional life, but, I suspect that because their titles and roles don’t focus on a particular tool (e.g., Excel) the Social Media Strategist, for example, is more likely to seek professional development in “Social Media Strategy” and not in any particular tool.
WHO ARE EXCEL POWER USERS?
A lot of us Excel power users started in situations like the one described in the previous section: Excel professional wasn’t the role we signed up for. We showed a skill and interest, and people kept asking us spreadsheet questions that we were able to figure out.
Their needs were driven by, “My ass is in the fire, and I don’t have time for the database admin to extinguish this thing next week. I need a one-time report for blah-blah-blah; can you please help me?”
Eventually, an ad hoc world took shape with all these random problems from unpredictable places. Lots of one-time problems that only a few people needed. Some days I felt like the protagonist in a post-apocalyptic movie where whatever data that hadn’t been looted or burned was hard to access. The DBAs had gone into hiding. Some days were spent scavenging for scraps of data, and piecing them together in secrecy to get some “good enough” measures of reality. Other days, you’d find ways to chisel through concrete walls to grab any data that you can find on the other side. Then hurry back to safety, avoiding ruthless data-jackers, wild animals, and the heat of the blazing hot sun.
THE POST-APOCALYPTIC WORLD OF THE EXCEL POWER USER
How do the worlds of the IT professionals differ from the Excel Power User?
I can’t say anything about the world of IT and SQL professionals. (It’d be great to hear from some true IT professionals on this). However, Shira Hammonn, a Lead Software Developer at Protiviti had this to say about the purpose and scope of IT:
Shira’s statement cut to the heart of the experience I had working in an enterprise. The tension between IT and the business was the on-going business need to dig into one-off bizarre situations, generate ad hoc reports and come up with solutions on a schedule that IT couldn’t meet.
One day the problem is tracking down the cause of 50 shipping errors, another day a productivity report is discovered to be incorrect, another day you’re looking for a pattern in credit card disputes. The stakes are huge for the people who are directly involved, but not for the overall enterprise.
None of these problems are repetitive.
None of them are needed by a wide number of people.
But there’s always something to figure out if you’ve shown some skill in being a data rogue in the midst of all that desperation.
Therefore, working in Excel as a power user is necessitated by the fact that the enterprise’s resources aren’t necessarily yours, too. Thus, the data rogue, the Excel power user is stuck between two extremes:
- Full-on bona fide IT professional
- Someone who offers perfunctory apologies for the post-apocalyptic conditions, and goes home exactly at 5pm.
So, how can we empower the Excel power user in this harsh environment? Do we want to empower the data rogue? Or, do we want more people who just apologize and shift blame for one-off breakdowns, punch out at 5 and collect a paycheck every 2 weeks?
That’s the world of it and we all get to make out own choices.
It’s been interesting talking with the folks at PASS BAC, Shira, and others who work with data. There needn’t be tension between IT and Excel power users. We have different roles on the same team.
Let’s think about the thrill of a post-apocalyptic world where peace is a fool’s fantasy, and less-than-horrible is sometimes the best you’re gonna get. A small group of survivors is hungry for quality data. The Excel power user is the community’s runner. Nimble, passionate about the mission, trustworthy, willing to go outside in the chaos, all for the sake of the survivors.
Those Social Media Specialists, Admin Assistants, Ops Assistants, etc. who don’t see themselves as runners, should start right now, and demand training and empowerment because we’re the ones who hold $#!t together at the street level. We can only succeed if we can keep our tools and minds sharp.
I wonder how other Excel power users characterize their roles? What would IT’s role be in surviving this dystopia? Please comment.